The day after Nate rode away, I met my future husband at the Bike Surgeon’s house in Carbondale. His name was Jeff, but of course I had no idea who he was at the time.
Jeff and his friend Wyeth had just arrived, and when I came back from town I saw them standing in Mark’s combination bicycle shop-front porch. Their bike shorts gave them away as cyclists. They were both tall and lanky; one had light blond hair and one had blondish-brown. The sort-of-brown-haired one grinned at me, and thought I was there to see the Bike Surgeon.
The first words I heard my future husband speak were, “Hey Mark, there’s a customer here to see you!”
“Oh, I’m not a customer,” I said.
Rachel was smiling as she walked in. “Gosh, Sara, I was wondering where you were! Did you meet Jeff and Wyeth? They're on the TransAm too—came from Cave-In-Rock today.”
"Hey!" said Jeff. “I just realized we heard about you before! Remember, Wy? Back in Virginia somewhere—what's your name again? I'm Jeff…" As we continued to talk, we made our way into the Bike Surgeon's cavernous living room and sank into the squishy cushioned couch.
Several hours later, still talking and laughing, we took a rainy walk through downtown Carbondale toward Quatro's Pizza Parlor.
“…So where did you hear about me first?” I asked the guys when we'd settled into a booth. The place was packed, and I practically had to yell to be heard over the hubbub of the young dinner crowd. No bare-your-soul introductions here.
“I guess it was the Blue Heron Café in Lexington,” Wyeth said.
“The lady said you'd passed through a couple weeks before," Jeff added. "You'd stayed with her sister's family or something. Then in the Elk Garden hostel we read your entry in the logbook and realized we were gaining on you."
“We started thinking we might catch up," Wyeth said, "but you wrote something about planning to do some eighty-mile days. There was no way we were doing eighty milers!"
“Eighty-miles?” I laughed in disbelief. “I don’t remember writing that!”
“You did though," Jeff said. "You wrote down your itinerary, you and that guy you were traveling with."
“Huh. I guess that must've been wishful thinking…”
We ordered a large pizza when the waitress came by. I was starving, and I hoped it would be *cyclists'* large.
"…Anyway, what happened to Nate?" asked Wyeth. "I take it he's not here anymore?"
"Actually, he left yesterday," I said. "We—ah—well, we weren't real compatible..."
The guys didn't ask for details, and I didn't volunteer. I didn't want to talk about Nate right now; I hadn't been in such a good mood for a long time. *I’ve laughed more tonight than I have in ages!* I thought.
Our conversation drifted toward the Trail, and we started sharing stories about our respective trips-of-a-lifetime.
"…Remember Booneville," Jeff was saying, "that church place with the lovely pit latrine? Did you meet Reverend Dean?"
“That’s too bad—he was a character. He told us he went coon huntin' with parishioners, and he showed us his beeper and Jeep Cherokee. He said he used to smoke pot in the sixties but he doesn't any more, despite the fact that Booneville's major cash crop is marijuana. But he still couldn't answer the one question I asked him about Jesus: he didn't know why Jesus cured one blind man but not the other.”
“What?” I asked, laughing at Jeff's serious expression.
“I asked him why he only picked one blind guy to heal instead of both of them—and he didn’t know.”
*Jeff and Wyeth laugh at religion,* I thought with relief. I had a feeling they wouldn't try to talk me into converting to Christianity and the Saving Powers of Jesus Christ.
“…Do you wanna ride together tomorrow?” I asked the guys when we'd finished every scrap of pizza.
“Well, we were planning to take a day off tomorrow,” Wyeth said. “But…”
“But we’re always planning on taking days off,” said Jeff, laughing, “so we can take one some other time.”
When I decided to ride my bicycle across the country, I knew hardly anything about bike mechanics. Hubs and derailleurs seemed mysteriously complicated, I had only a foggy idea of the use for a cone wrench, and I couldn't have identified a crank puller if it had knocked me on the head. So before I left on my trip, I set out to learn how bicycles work.
“Um, I was wondering,” I said on the breezy September afternoon when I first went into our local bike shop, “if I could volunteer here and learn about bikes and maintenance.”
The man behind the counter said, “Huh?”
“Well, see,” I began again, “I’m planning to ride my bike across the country next summer and I don’t know anything about bicycles.” Great. That really sounded stupid. “So anyway,” I rushed on, “I was wondering if I could come in and help you out and maybe you could teach me some stuff about fixing bikes and things.”
The man was perplexed. “How old are you?”
“Well, we couldn’t pay you—we've got plenty of mechanics.”
“Well, I’m not a mechanic by any stretch of the imagination, anyway! I just want to learn about bicycles." It probably did seem ludicrous: a sixteen-year-old girl who could barely tell a sprocket from a spoke wrench, stating that she was going to ride her bicycle across the country next year.
“I suppose so,” the man said uncertainly. “You just want to come in and work? I need to talk it over with my wife, but I think it's fine. Why don’t you come by next week and we’ll figure things out…”
Until the end of March I spent eight hours a week in the shop, vacuuming, doing odd jobs, cleaning, and learning to assemble and repair bicycles. I also spent quite a bit of time being teased unmercifully by the college guys who worked there.
“So, you’ve never been to school?” Mike would narrow his eyes every time he started in with me. “You’re a homeschooler, aren’t you?” He sure was slow—I’d told him that I didn’t go to school at least a dozen times already.
“Yeah,” I would reply shortly, hoping that he'd take the hint and shut up.
“Well then,” he would say slowly, expertly adjusting a derailleur as he talked, “how do you learn anything? More importantly, for that matter: how do you meet *guys*?"
He leered, leaning toward me. "Hey Frank and Marty—do you realize this kid’s not gonna get to go to the *prom*?? So, *Homeschooler,* do you have a boyfriend?” I’d hear Frank and Marty laughing above the hiss of the air compressor or the rattle of tools on the workbench.
Mike made me squirm, and I didn’t want him to see that, no matter what. I’d act uncaring and indifferent to his teasing. First I’d say something like, “To loosen the spoke you turn it to the left, right?” I’d listen for his answer before replying, “…No, I don’t have a boyfriend. Also, I actually don’t *want* to go to a prom. And anyway, you’ve asked me all this stuff before. Why do you care so much about my social life?”
Working at the bike shop was the beginning of a year spent in a men’s domain. Men worked in the shop, and the store’s clientele was almost exclusively male. On the trip itself, I was surrounded by men I encountered in grocery stores, gas stations, and the cycling community on the road. When I decided to ride my bicycle across the country, I walked into male territory in a way I never had when I was, say, involved with ballet or community theatre.
When I pedaled into Carbondale, Illinois and had been traveling for two months, I'd begun to wonder about my (lack of) skill in the area of relating to men. Why was I able to meet so many nice women and not many men at all? I was thinking about Nate specifically, but there were others. There were the various strangers—male—who'd hooted from pick-up trucks. There was Bob at the Beechgrove Grocery, and all the other male shopkeepers I'd complained about to Nate. There was that man who'd said I should hop into his car to escape from any "bears" that might eat me up. Then there was the 55-year-old man, who, in central Virginia, had offered me a "back rub" to ease my aching muscles.
The list went on, I realized dismally after saying goodbye to Nate, and I began to wonder if getting along with men would always be a mystery. *That would sort of curtail romantic opportunities,* I thought. *I really need to figure out guys!*
Then I met Jeff and Wyeth. And within twenty-four hours, I realized that there was nothing to figure out. With them I felt comfortable, and I decided that there was hope for my social skills after all.